Europe, Not Sure What to Make of Itself

  • London

Some years ago, a French friend of mine predicted the rise of Jean-Marie Le Pen, the man who is today challenging Jacques Chirac in the second round of France’s presidential elections. Although she is a historian, my friend’s prediction had nothing to do with fascism, of which Le Pen stands accused, or with the murky history of Nazi-occupied, Vichy France, whose standard Le Pen is sometimes said to be carrying. Nor did it have anything to do with the European Union, which Le Pen opposes, or the United States, which Le Pen doesn’t much like either. She thought instead that the French would sooner or later object to the fast-growing numbers of North African immigrants in the country, whose presence Le Pen abhors. “You see,” she told me, “nobody has ever asked us if we wanted them here.”

It’s a sentiment few Americans would express, or could express. We are a nation of immigrants, as all of us know. Perhaps some of us think the number of new immigrants who move to the United States is too large. Perhaps some of us would prefer our immigrants to arrive legally or from different countries. But we cannot claim to be bewildered by their sudden appearance: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses” comes from a poem that many of us learned in school.

Yet bewilderment is precisely what many Europeans seem to feel about their foreign-born populations. Immigrants might be an economic necessity in Europe — Germany is openly trying to recruit foreign computer specialists — but few make that argument in public, as they do in the United States. Immigrants might contribute to a nation’s cuisine or to its winning soccer team, but the “melting pot” is an American notion — one that doesn’t have much of an echo on the other side of the Atlantic. Instead, to many Europeans, the notion of immigration connotes not opportunity and entrepreneurship, but disorder, poverty and, above all, crime.

More to the point, immigrants — particularly in large numbers, and particularly if they come from very different cultures — change the nature of the societies in which they make their home. And many Europeans do not want their societies to change. Their votes for Le Pen — or for Joerg Haider in Austria, or for anti-immigrant candidates such as Pim Fortuyn in Holland — are intended, among other things, to tell their distant-seeming politicians precisely that. Over here, most people live in countries that have traditionally thought of themselves as ethnically, culturally and linguistically homogenous — and they would like it to stay that way.

Which would be fine — that’s their prerogative — except that most European countries aren’t actually homogenous, at least not any more. These days, 5 percent of the Dutch population is Muslim. Up to 20 percent of the inhabitants of France may now be of non-French descent. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, just under 9 percent of those living in Germany were born outside Germany, which is not far from the percentage of foreign-born Americans living in America. Even these figures probably do not fully reflect reality — no one can count illegal immigrants with any accuracy — and the numbers don’t give any idea of the cultural impact of immigration, either. Walking through Europe’s major cities, it is hard not to feel the presence of immigrants — London’s Pakistanis, Paris’s North Africans, Berlin’s Russians, Amsterdam’s Indonesians, everyone’s East Europeans — their restaurants and grocery shops, ethnic clothes and different features.

It’s strange, perhaps even paradoxical, but true: Over the past two decades, millions of people have migrated to Europe, from all over the world. Yet philosophically and institutionally, Europeans and their governments have barely begun to acknowledge their presence.

The philosophical problem is probably the hardest to crack. As I say, by international standards, most European countries have an unusually distinct definition of their own national identity. Historically, to be Dutch meant not only speaking a certain language and living in a certain place, but eating certain foods and following a circumscribed number of religious and cultural practices. Historically, to be Dutch also meant being tolerant, and the Dutch liked to think of themselves as a people open to refugees and to deserving immigrants — so long as those refugees and immigrants eventually learned to speak, think, eat and live like Dutch people do.

And until recently, it wasn’t so difficult for the Dutch — or the Danes, or the British — to be tolerant. In 1981, following the declaration of martial law in Poland, the British took in some 400 Polish refugees. This was hardly a difficult number to absorb, and indeed my husband, one of the 400, remembers being received with nothing but enthusiasm and sympathy. Since then, the number of refugees has risen dramatically, the enthusiasm has waned and the sympathy has disappeared — and not merely because there are, as some British politicians claim, more bogus asylum-seekers than in the past. The trouble isn’t the bogus asylum-seekers; the trouble is the real ones. Not long ago, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees estimated that the number of legitimate refugees around the world — from Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Somalia and Sri Lanka, among many other places — hovers around 22.3 million.

The number of people with legitimate claims of political persecution in their homelands is far higher. Harriet Sergeant, author of a report on refugees in Britain, puts it like this: “If you are poor and live in the Third World, you are put upon. You get paid very little, you have no recourse to law, you get beaten up by the government, by another tribe, by your neighbors, for any number of reasons that could leave you with a fear of persecution.” In the past, such people couldn’t travel. Now they can. But the combination of greater mobility with Europe’s generally liberal, well-intentioned laws on political asylum has led to the nightmare of overfilled refugee camps, riots and bureaucratic disasters: At one point in 1998-99, the British government had a backlog of 100,000 unprocessed asylum applications.

Yet not all of those who count as “foreigners” in Europe are asylum-seekers, either. As long ago as the 1940s and ’50s, inhabitants of the former French and British empires were given easier entry into those countries, as a gesture of post-colonial largess. At the time the gesture was made, no one thought much about the longterm consequences. Likewise, the Germans encouraged Gastarbeiter — “guest-workers” — from Turkey and Yugoslavia, among other places, who were meant, eventually, to go home.

Several decades later, it is clear that this generation of immigrants did not go home — and that their children and their grandchildren aren’t going “home” either. Neither did all of them “become Dutch” — or German or British — with the speed some had hoped. In some ways, the host nations are at fault: German citizenship laws are so closely linked to German notions of ethnicity that even third-generation Turks, born in Germany, do not automatically become German citizens. In some ways, the immigrants are at fault: Although many have fit in extremely well — Britain has an unusually high rate of interracial marriage, as well as interracial pop music and an interracial film industry — others, not wanting their children to become contaminated by English ways of life, have deliberately tried not to assimilate. Whole neighborhoods in some English cities are segregated not merely by race, but according to which village in Pakistan or Bangladesh the residents — or their ancestors — originally came from.

Failure to assimilate has, in turn, led to economic failure and to high unemployment rates, particularly among those of non-European origin. In some countries, poverty has created ghettos, gangs, high rates of immigrant criminality — and worse. A number of the fanatics who flew the hijacked jets last September had lived for many years in Germany, a fact that was widely noticed elsewhere on the continent. European Muslims also appear to have orchestrated recent attacks on Jewish synagogues — leading a small but dedicated group of French Jews, among them the owner of a famous Jewish restaurant in Paris, to support Le Pen, who has called the Holocaust a “detail of history.”

I’ve experienced the European ambivalence about immigration firsthand. No one waved flags or sang national anthems on the day I took British citizenship two years ago. Nor did anyone in an official position ever say, “Congratulations” or, “We’re so pleased to have you” or even, “Welcome to the club, old girl.” Instead, I sat alone in an office with a businesslike bureaucrat, who administered a brief oath to Her Majesty the Queen on a paperback Bible. She asked me no questions about Great Britain, nor had I taken a citizenship test, as all would-be Americans have to do. The rules are straightforward: You marry a British citizen, you live in Britain the requisite number of years, you get a passport. You can have dual citizenship, as I have. But don’t expect anybody to get excited about it. That’s the British way. With variations, that’s more or less the French way, the Dutch way and the Danish way, too.

A variety of factors lie behind this ambivalence. Not only do none of these countries have a multicultural tradition, they also harbor a great deal of residual guilt and trauma about World War II, which has left them with a powerful desire not to appear racist. As a result, public debate has often veered between piety and hypocrisy, smugness and ambivalence. European politicians and journalists, both left- and right-wing, have avoided criticizing immigrants or immigration in any way, for fear of sounding nationalist or racist. Torrents of accusations pour down upon the heads of those who argue for policies that would encourage speedier assimilation. Britain’s home secretary, David Blunkett, recently criticized the practice of forced marriages among some British Asians and has spoken of mandatory English classes for immigrants. In response, Shahid Malik, a former member of the British Commission for Racial Equality, accused the home secretary of “unsettling hundreds of thousands of non-white Britons.” Blunkett’s remarks, Malik said, “felt like a kick in the teeth.”

It was a standard exchange. On this subject, the Times of London opined, “anyone who tries to advance new thinking runs the same danger as a mountaineer leading his companions up a sheer rockface.” No wonder the issues of immigration and assimilation have been abandoned to the far right, or in some cases to the anti-establishment right: to Le Pen, to Haider and to the new political groupings in Holland and Belgium and Denmark, among others. Mainstream politicians don’t, for the most part, want to go near it, even though it’s a mainstream concern.

Some observers of the French elections now hope that all of this will change. Over the past two weeks, many European editorialists and commentators have written of the surprise first-round results as a “wake-up call” — a warning to Europe’s centrist politicians to think harder about immigration and about crime. I wonder if that will really be the case. After the first-round results, an emotional and rather vague Chirac appealed to the French to support les droits d’homme — human rights — and asked the French to join together, as a nation, to defeat Le Pen. Soothing and inspiring though this sort of rhetoric may be, it will not make any of the problems go away. What is needed, rather, is a franker, more rancorous, national conversation about what it means, nowadays, to be French, and about how immigrants can be helped to fit that national definition.

For better or worse, I don’t see that the American example will be of much use in this debate. Tempting though it may be, it is not for us to tell the French how to be French, or the Dutch how to be Dutch. For one, we are not always honest about our own national attitudes toward immigration and assimilation, which have changed radically over time and may yet change again. More to the point, European national traditions have served Europe well, in many ways, giving Europeans secure and comfortable national identities, creating the social cohesion necessary for democracy and prosperity. We should hope they find ways to preserve them in the present.